INTERVIEW: Madeline Bell (with the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw in A Tribute to Ray Charles (EFG LJF Nov 18th)

Madeline Bell. Photo credit: © Ans van Heck Photography.

MADELINE BELL will be performing with the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw from the Netherlands, the band’s first ever appearance in the UK on November 18th in Cadogan Hall. Stephen Graham interviewed  the American singer, and found out more about her fascination with Ray Charles:  

It’s over a decade since Ray Charles died. Yet the music of the man they called “the Genius,” “the high Priest of Soul,” or simply “Brother Ray” is as well-loved and respected today as it was during his lifetime. The flame of his great talent has been kept alive by a hit film and by many musical tributes. And for the first time at the London Jazz Festival there’s a chance this year to hear one such, with the distinguished soul and jazz singer.

Singing since her teenage years in Newark, New Jersey Bell toured with the musical Black Nativity eventually making her home in Britain and going on to become a backing singer for Dusty Springfield, later seizing the spotlight herself and having hits with the likes of ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’.

Bell says that her first experiences of the music of Ray Charles go back to around 1960:

“It was the ‘live’ recording at the Newport Jazz Festival of ‘Drown in My Own Tears’ that caught my attention A black blind man, playing the organ was only seen in black churches.” (Link To video)

Bell and the orchestra released a CD tribute to Ray Charles some years ago and have toured their concert version of his songs extensively. Madeline says: “The choice of songs for the album Tribute to Ray Charles was made by the musicians in the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, Henk Meutgeert the musical director and myself. This was very difficult as the Ray Charles catalogue is so extensive.”

But fundamental to the tribute, for her, is integrity and the most important aspects of the process, she says, are “performing with emotion and respect, not trying to mimic Ray Charles. I’ve only ever seen one performer successfully impersonate him. Billy Preston does a wonderful tribute singing ‘Summertime’ live.

Bell has been involved with the jazz scene in the UK for a long time. Her comments on how the scene has changed and how she sees herself as an artist are interesting: “I am a singer. Simple. I have never declared myself to be anything else. Others have labelled me as a jazz, pop and soul vocalist. The first time (1987), and the last time (2015) I played Ronnie Scott’s we did everything from Blue Mink (Good Morning Freedom) to Great Balls of Fire. The audience accepted whatever we gave them. Music is ‘life’, and I have the best musicians who have been with me since our first gig at Ronnie Scott’s.”

Her versatility throughout her career, as she herself alludes to, has fallen under many categories, from gospel to soul and pop as well as jazz. “When I arrived in the UK as a cast member of Black Nativity in 1962 I was a gospel singer, I knew nothing else. When I returned having signed with EMI in September 1963 I became ‘a pop singer’. Then I worked for many years in London’s recording studios where I had to learn and sing backing vocals, lead vocals, harmonies, how to sing in different languages and styles, and discipline. I worked the clubs throughout the UK as a cabaret artiste. Then in 1987 Mr Ronnie Scott and Mr Pete King convinced me that it was time for me to step into jazz. They told me ‘you belong in Ronnie’s.’ That’s when I became a jazz singer. I was doubtful, they were sure!”

“Very few people can fill the shoes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, or even Sarah Vaughan who was my mom’s childhood friend in Newark, NJ in the USA during the 1940s and 1950s. I don’t try to sound or sing like any of my heroes. I was reminded in my early solo recording days that the world doesn’t need or want another Aretha Franklin, who was unknowingly singing jazz straight out of church. I love all styles, from Aretha to Amy Winehouse, whom I thought was a brilliant singer/songwriter.

“Some of my biggest heroes are Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston. They, like most singers, male and female, learned how to tell the story from Ray Charles. He had soul, warmth, humour and the ability to ‘tell it like he felt it.’ I saw Ray Charles in 1961 when he came to the 41st Street Theatre, NYC to ‘see and hear’ Black Nativity. Then I had the honour of performing with him at Earl’s Court, London. I will always treasure that day.”

Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw featuring Madeline Bell takes place at London’s Cadogan Hall during the EFG London Jazz Festival on Wednesday 18th November. 

LINK: Tickets:

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1 reply »

  1. In Black Nativity 1961, NYC i heard Madeline sing for the first time:”It was Poor Little Jesus, Born in a Manger. He didnt have a Cradle. Wasnt that a Pity and a Shame!” OMG!! I still get chills reliving how she dug deep in her Solar Plexus to deliver this unforgettable tear-jerking too-short song!! Signed by LoLo Lawrence, thewisestwomenintheworld…

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